While Hollywood actors are no stranger to the concept of making appearances in videogames, there's a strong feeling that such attention is little more than lipservice to an increasingly lucrative entertainment media - but Vin Diesel, as an avid gamer and Hollywood actor is a rare bridge between the two worlds.
Here, Ian Stevens, who heads up Diesel's Tigon Studios production company, talks about the way the film and games industries collide, as well as looking back to the firm's first project - a certain Riddick game called Escape From Butcher Bay... Part two of this interview will follow next week.
Q: For people that might not have heard of Tigon, tell us a bit about how it started.
Ian Stevens: Vin [Diesel] founded the company in 2002, and he did that as he was going into production on the Chronicles of Riddick film. He did it because we were already in production on Escape From Butcher Bay, and he's a huge nerd and a huge gamer, and he didn't want to just show up to do voice-overs and character likeness approvals, and limit his involvement to what's typically the scope of actors working in games.
So he started the company and managed to wrangle some control in Escape From Butcher Bay's story, he brought in some script-writers to try and give himself a more meaningful role in that process. That's when he and I first met.
Over time the company has grown in terms of the scope of what we're trying to do - I think The Wheelman is an example of the initiative we've taken to try and create new IP, and not just involve ourselves in the scope of films that he's in.
So it really is just about a guy who loves games wanting to find a way for Hollywood and the games industry to find more interesting ways to work together than they typically do.
Q: Butcher Bay was a good example of how to treat a film license well, from the game's point of view - so in other words, not just a 'game of the film'. The understanding that videogames are a different medium, and require a different approach, was an important milestone - so did you know at the time you were working on a special title?
Ian Stevens: I don't think so - to be honest, up until we started getting review scores, the feeling we had from most people was an incredible lack of interest. Seriously. It was a movie game, it was a developer that people hadn't really heard of, it was some actor that people weren't really sure they liked, and it was a publisher that didn't have a reputation for quality. Nobody really gave a sh*t.
I remember at E3 that year, when people actually got a chance to play it, you could see their eyebrows raising. But that was the first time really. We felt as if nobody was really going to pay it any attention.
Q: So it must have been a nice surprise when review scores started to come in?
Ian Stevens: It was a very nice surprise, and a mixed one as well - the game got a great reception, and great review scores... and the movie didn't. It was an interesting time because at the time Vivendi had two big licensed properties - one was Riddick and the other was Van Helsing.
I thought - Hugh Jackman, Universal monsters, this is going to be huge. And they put all of their resources behind Van Helsing, so even internally in the corporate business, we felt that nobody was thinking it was going to be anything special. And in the end Riddick didn't sell especially well, so we walked away feeling great that Riddick was this wonderful game, and yet so much else around that wasn't hitting the same plateau.
Q: What does that tell you about the business of videogames? Back in 2004 the power was clearly with the marketing, so is that still the case five years on?
Ian Stevens: I think marketing is hugely important no matter what. We have some really interesting trappings in this industry - the press was a bit late to the game in terms of their appreciation for it, and so what that did to us was that Wal-Mart, Target, GameStop, GAME - all these retailers around the world were looking at the coverage and not seeing much love. They have their own metrics for figuring out how well something's going to do, so their quantities were really conservative.
Then, in turn, the marketing people feel there's not such a good shot at selling a lot of units so why would they sink however many dollars into it if they don't think they'll see a return. There's a bit of a wag-the-dog or chicken-and-egg scenario that happens, and I think that's a frustration that a lot of people in the business deal with regularly.
Q: The onus on marketing doesn't seem to have changed, despite the industry growing up significantly in the past five years.
Ian Stevens: Well, you can't expect to sell a tonne of units without the investment. If it sounds like I'm saying this happened because we didn't get enough press attention, I'm really not - what I'm saying is that we were in an ecosystem that was struggling with this issue. What would have been better for us is if somebody had just decided to take the risk, the view that in order to make money they needed to market the game. Riddick was not heavily marketed, at all.
That, in tandem with the film - in truth I don't know how much that hurt or helped us in general, but it's a difficult thing to figure out. I've made other games since then that were not nearly as good that sold millions and millions. Like Transformers. My life is difficult... what can I say? [smiles]
Q: How did that Butcher Bay experience bring learnings to the team? Were you a bit more cynical as a result?
Ian Stevens: No, not so much. Every game you make has got its own unique set of circumstances and challenges, disappointments, things you run into and deal with. The thing we took away from Butcher Bay more than anything was just hoping that we might have a better experience with the publishing process the next time around.
And then the flipside of that was an awful lot of confidence that we could create value for something. What you can say in that scenario is that we made a game which was averaging 9s, and if you can't sell that it's probably not our problem. In terms of building the reputation of that studio, Starbreeze, and Tigon, and then leaving that and looking for new opportunities it was great - it was euphoric and a good thing.
But certainly there were a lot of lessons learned, and some of that winds up being in a discussion on making licensed games. But that happens all the time - there's always something that goes wrong, or that can be done better next time.
Q: So what involvement does Vin have on a day-to-day basis?
Ian Stevens: Well, it's interesting, and it varies depending on what he's doing. If he's shooting a Fast and Furious I get a lot less of his time, but an example of just Vin's involvement - which is not necessarily Tigon's involvement - is that we'll sit down and build through a build of Assault on Dark Athena, and he'll look at the camera angles that we're choosing, some of the moments that we're trying to emphasise. And as a film-maker - because I think a lot of people forget that Vin got his start in indie films and wrote, produced and directed... that was the stuff that impressed Spielberg enough to get him a part in Saving Private Ryan.
So he's not quite the meat-head action star that a lot of people see him as. He'll look at these things and bring up a list of thirty things you could do to make this hour of gameplay, from a narrative standpoint, more immersive, more interesting. So we take it back to shop, and maybe half of them are things we can do, and half of them aren't - but it's an interesting bit of feedback that otherwise wouldn't exist, wouldn't be solicited, that happens because he's involved in the process.
Q: As much as people talk about the differences between the visual and interactive media, there's still a huge role for storytelling - and it must make a difference to have that experience involved?
Ian Stevens: It does, and probably the thing I've realised the most over the last couple of years, now being a lot closer to people in Hollywood and seeing some of their process, is just how little I - or anybody else around games - know about storytelling. I give a lot of people respect for their effort, and a lot of the time they can do some really good things, but there's such a depth and vocabulary involved in film-making that we're just completely ignorant of.
Try as we might, we're not film-makers - and those are the collaborations that are the most interesting to me, to get some of those people working together to bleed and blend those lines, and get some of the expertise into a game... as opposed to an abstract sharing of ideas, which is what we do.
Q: Has Hollywood's attitude towards games changed in the past five years?
Ian Stevens: It certainly has, and I think a lot of it has changed because we're making so much more money than they are. There's certainly no shortage of guys that look at games and see them as toys, and meaningless bullsh*t, and now look at revenue - and for their own survival's sake have to care, and have to get involved.
Hollywood and games, over the next decade, you'll see some really interesting things happen. My curiosity is always about the execution of those things, because we don't speak the same language. Oftentimes people in Hollywood struggle to understand the creative decisions that we make - they don't get why something is more fun than something else, or why a character would need to be changed completely to work as a videogame character.
I think that's probably really hard to get unless you play games. I don't know there's an academic way to understand why Mario is fun, or what's fun about a raid in World of Warcraft, or why it's cool to shiv people in the neck when you're playing Dark Athena - I don't know there's an abstract way of explaining that.
Ian Stevens heads up Tigon Studios. Interview by Phil Elliott. Part two will follow next week.